Industry People: Mort Lachman
EmptyWhen it comes to finding success as a writer in the entertainment industry, Mort Lachman says there's nothing mysterious about it.
"Work your ass off," he says. "I don't know any other secret to the business. I certainly didn't do it with personality."
The former head writer for Bob Hope modestly says he isn't sure what else besides hard work gave him a gig in Hollywood for more than a half-century, and his resume speaks for itself. In addition to writing Hope's jokes for 30 years, he served as executive producer of such TV titans as "All in the Family," "Gimme a Break!" and "Kate & Allie," and even produced a failed TV pilot for Oprah Winfrey.
Celebrating his 90th birthday this month, the quiet guy from Seattle traces his roots in the business back to 1946, when he moved to Palm Springs after serving time in the Army. He read that singer-comedian Eddie Cantor was reading scripts for his radio show, and though Lachman didn't have any experience, he had nothing to lose.
So he wrote five jokes for Cantor, whose house was just down the block.
"I went down there and knocked on the door. And a voice screamed at me, 'What do you want?' And I said, 'Well, I read that you're reading jokes.' This skinny hand reached out from the door and grabbed the jokes out of my hand and slammed the door in my face. I didn't even see a face! And that's where I started." Lachman finished a season on Cantor's show, but then "left because he sang flat."
Lachman eventually got Cantor's voice out of his head, but he had no idea that another famous radio voice was about to become his new boss.
While Lachman was stationed on Alaska's Aleutian Islands, he would tune in to Hope and Bing Crosby's annual Christmas broadcast.
A few years later, in 1947, he landed a $75-per-week writing gig on Hope's radio show.
On Lachman's first day in the writers room, it was clear he didn't realize what he was getting into.
"These guys were all from New York, and I was from Seattle," Lachman recalls. "So these guys all yelled out loud and talked, and I'd never spoken out loud in my life," he jokes of his own quiet nature.
Lachman forgot to bring along a notepad to jot down ideas, but he had an envelope in his back pocket. "I took it out, and I wrote down a punch line that might work." Hope grabbed the envelope out of his hand and read it, crumpled it up and handed it back to Lachman, and said, "'It's a network show -- get stationery.'"
Hope did the joke out loud and "naturally -- because he was the star -- got a huge laugh. And it went in the show. It was my first joke on the air," Lachman says.
He went on to become Hope's go-to gag writer, producer and sometimes director for the next three decades.
"It was the strangest thing in my life that I was in the Army, listening to Bing and Bob on the radio," Lachman says. "And three years later, I was in the booth, looking down on the floor, and there were Bing and Bob, and they were doing my jokes."
He remembers Hope used to say, "'There's two Morts: There's one Mort who sits here in the room with us and pitches jokes and hollers and screams and works like we do. And then there is the owl, who sits up above, looking down on us and says, 'What fools these assholes be.'"
Lachman parlayed his joke writing into a successful run on television. He worked as a writer and exec producer with "All in the Family" developer Norman Lear on the 1970s sitcom. "If he didn't invent wry, he improved it," Lear says. Lachman later worked on the "Family" spinoff "Archie Bunker's Place."
"He's the type of guy that you drop a pebble in the water, and all the rings start to move around, and they turn into sitcoms," says Jerry Stiller, who guest starred on two episodes of "Archie Bunker's Place."
"Mort loved actors. He loved funny actors. He loved comedy," says Stiller's wife, Anne Meara, who appeared on three seasons of the show.
Throughout the years, Lachman was brought on as a joke doctor to punch up scripts -- as well as speeches for the likes of Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater and Robert Kennedy. The gigs often came through recommendations from Hope.
"Hope used to call (the writers at) 3 o'clock in the morning from someplace -- or anytime that he wanted -- and he wanted a joke for one of the presidents or something. And Mort was one of the first wanted. He could come up with it like that," says Patt Shea, television writer and wife of former DGA president and fellow Hope alum Jack Shea.
Shea credits Lachman with providing her big break back when she was a mother and aspiring writer. "I was writing in my car because it was the only place that I could get away to write." Mort knew that and hooked her up with a writing post on the 1978 sitcom "In the Beginning," which he exec produced, and later a spot on the "All in the Family" writing team.
"He changed my life. He gave me a career after I was around a long time," Shea says.
Before screenwriter Mel Shavelson's passing last year, he and Lachman were working on a script titled "September Song." The two friends previously wrote 1968's "Yours, Mine and Ours" and 1974's "Mixed Company" together, and their relationship dates back to their years in the fraternity that was the Hope gag-writing team. "It's about two writers whose whole life is the writing, but they're too old to work anymore. So you can tell it was really about me and Mel," says Lachman of the script that he still hopes to get made.
Lachman has been rewarded for the years he put into the business with numerous Emmy, WGA and Humanitas nominations and honors, but he is most proud of the Emmys. They sit on a shelf in his living room next to a Bob Hope talking figurine.
Highlights from Mort Lachman's film and television career
"All in the Family"
Mort Lachman didn't sign on to the Emmy-winning sitcom "All in the Family" as a writer and exec producer until 1976, and he remembers hearing that the show's star Carroll O'Connor didn't think the new producer would last two weeks. A month later, O'Connor was asked if Lachman was still around. "'He's not going any place. As long as I live, he's gonna be with me,'" Lachman recalls O'Connor saying. Writer Bob Schiller compared working on the top-rated show to "working for the Yankees. You're playing center field for the Yankees."
Redd Foxx "has as much talent in his little finger as most of the rest of the world has," says Lachman of the sitcom's star. Lachman exec produced the sequel to "Sanford and Son," and counts Foxx as one of the people who impressed him the most in Hollywood. "Redd Foxx was surprising to me because he just had it in him -- some wonderful thing inside of that man. I don't know what the hell it was. He was just funny."
"The Stiller & Meara Show" (1986)
Exec producer Lachman first pitched the television pilot starring Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara to Michael Eisner, who was then at CBS, before selling it to the late NBC programming wonder exec Brandon Tartikoff (who would later bring "Seinfeld" to the peacock network). The comedy didn't pan out after failing to test well with audiences, but not without a fight from Lachman. "Once he does a project with you, he'll fight for the project till the very end," says Stiller.
"Yours, Mine and Ours" (1968)
The screenplay for "Yours, Mine and Ours" was one of numerous projects that Lachman co-wrote with longtime friend Mel Shavelson. The comedy stars Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda as a widow and a widower whose newly combined family totals 20. Shavelson "was the brains," recalls Lachman. While Shavelson typed on his computer, "I used to go out in the yard, and he wrote, and I swung and hit golf balls into his swimming pool." The duo received a WGA nom for their efforts.